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Read someone you disagree with

In 2011, economist Paul Krugman wrote

Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously. I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that most of the time they don’t. The parties are not equally irresponsible; Rachel Maddow isn’t Glenn Beck; and a conservative blog, almost by definition, is a blog written by someone who chooses not to notice that asymmetry. And life is short…

True, life is short. Each of us has a fixed budget of time which we have to allocate so as to maximize our utility, as an economist might put it.

But I still think Krugman is fundamentally mistaken. After all, what is this utility we are trying to maximise? The affirmation we get when we read something we agree with? Or the vigorous mental workout that comes from studying an opposing argument?

Each day, I read an old Newsweek column by Milton Friedman and one by Paul Samuelson. Friedman was one of the last century’s best known proponents of free enterprise and limited government. Samuelson, by contrast, was a noted supporter of economic interventionism. Not a socialist, but a committed Keynesian. Of the two, I think I get more benefit from reading Samuelson’s columns than Friedman’s. Friedman, of course, had a gift for making the case for free markets with devastating logic and clarity. I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. By contrast, I find myself disagreeing with much that Samuelson writes. But encountering arguments you disagree with when put as well as Samuelson puts them, you are are better prepared to rebut those argument when you come across them elsewhere. And who knows, you might even be convinced.

In the same way that Marvin Hagler was made a better boxer by sparring in the gym with a quality opponent like Buster Drayton, there are few things better for intellectual health than reading something written by someone who you disagree with. Try it.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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